Commentary

It Happens Here, Too: Sexual Harassment in the Schools

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A female high-school student believes she has been sexually harassed by the school's band director, who, besides touching her during practice sessions at school, has hinted at his interest in having sex with her when the band plays at school-sponsored musical events away from school. At first she complains to the high school's principal, who responds by telling her it is her word against the band director's. Furthermore, he tells her, the band director has always received excellent evaluations. The young woman decides to file a lawsuit.

A young woman in the 8th grade, one of the few females in an auto-mechanics course, is subjected to dirty, sexist jokes by classmates. The teacher never intervenes, even though he seems to overhear some of the banter. The other girls in the class seem oblivious or unaffected by the jokes, but this one young woman can't block out the jokes, or the stares; she feels generally uncomfortable. Although she tries to stay focused on her projects, she finds it hard to pay attention, and soon the quality of her work declines. She receives a less than satisfactory grade in the first marking period and is advised to drop the course... which she does.

Scenarios such as these are sadly frequent in school life, yet are startlingly absent from the literature on education, and from the recent national discourse on sexual harassment. Assuming that one is able to identify these descriptions as "child sexual abuse," or "sexual harassment," one would have great difficulty finding published literature on the existence of these problems and strategies for coping with them in elementary and secondary schools.

Sexual harassment in the schools does not look the same (albeit with younger actors) as it does in higher education. With subjects age 12 and older, harassment is all too often dismissed as "typical adolescent behavior," and misconstrued as a normal rite of passage, as awkward "getting-to-know-you" behaviors. It is trivialized, condoned, or described as "flirting' or "initiation rites."

Sexual harassment occurs in the mundane, daily matters of school life:in the corridors and stairwells; in the cafeteria; in the chemistry lab as well as in the carpentry shop; in the gym and the parking lot; on school buses; in the driver's-education car; and on the practice fields of extracurricular sports. This is apparent, even though only a few surveys on sexual harassment in high schools have been completed. The first, conducted in 1980 by the Massachusetts Department of Education with assistance from the now-defunct organization Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, questioned approximately 200 male and female students from across the state. In-depth interviews also were completed between 1979 and 1982 with young women enrolled in courses previously considered nontraditional for their sex (auto mechanics, plant maintenance, plumbing and air conditioning, metal fabrication, and so forth).

In addition to validating that harassment does in fact occur in these settings, the research revealed the following trends:

  • Young women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment, especially in the more severe forms of unwanted physical attention, than their male counterparts.
  • Sexual harassment is a problem for many students in high school, in both vocational high schools and comprehensive schools. It is not the case that harassment occurs only when young women are in the minority, as they often are in vocational schools or in courses that have been previously considered sex-role nontraditional. Sexual harassment is a typical part of the fabric of daily life in schools where young women make up 50 percent of the school population.
  • Student-to- student sexual harassment is more prevalent than teacher-to- student.
  • Peer-to-peer sexual harassment ranged from verbal and written comments to physical assault and attempted rape.
  • Sexual harassment on the job is not unfamiliar to high-school students, whether the jobs are part of the school curriculum, as in "co-op" jobs supervised by school personnel, or are acquired independently by students, outside the school.

These and other attempts to collect data have shown that sexual harassment has an adverse impact on teaching and learning--in the classroom and outside it. Students who have experienced harassment report an array of consequences. Among the direct effects cited are feelings of embarrassment, fear of retaliation, anger, powerlessness, loss of self-confidence, and cynicism about education and teachers. Students also identify physical symptoms, including insomnia and listlessness, and report a reduced ability to perform schoolwork, excessive absenteeism, or frequent tardiness. Many also indicate that sexual harrassment led them to transfer from particular courses or majors, and, in some cases, to withdraw from school. Such consequences clearly constitute a denial of equal educational opportunity and the presence of a "hostile environment."

More subtle experiences of harassment produce less tangible results. Students who feel betrayed, discredited, or compromised by peers, and unsupported by school staff, seem less trusting of people in general, and less enthusiastic about pursuing their education. Victims/subjects of sexual harassment, as well as the bystanders and witnesses to such incidents, express a loss of confidence in the effectiveness of school policies. In fact, positive feelings and beliefs about justice and caring may be in jeopardy if such a "poisoned environment" is allowed to exist through the tolerance of sexual harassment. In our chapter from the forthcoming book Sexuality and the Curriculum ("Bitter Lessons for All: Sexual Harassment in the Schools"), my coauthors Eleanor Linn, Jackie Young, Sandra Davis, and I explain that such a loss of community, let alone the hope for a just and caring community, may have a greater impact upon young women than young men, whether or not these young women are themselves the victims of sexual harassment.

A more recent survey was conducted in 1986 in Minnesota with male and female juniors and seniors, ages 16 to 18, enrolled in a predominantly white, middle-class secondary vocational center. The results of that study, published in the March 1988 issue of the NASSP Bulletin, show that 33 percent to 60 percent of the 133 females responding reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, while only 1 of the 130 males questioned said he had been the victim of sexual harassment. Additional data were obtained at a Minnesota State Sex-Equity Student Leadership Conference, held in May of 1986. Eighty percent of the participants indicated that they were aware of incidents of sexual harassment in their schools.

Although sexual harassment is a widely researched phenomenon in higher education, in elementary and secondary schools it remains largely unexplored and, when investigated, usually denied. But there, too, it is against the law and is a form of sex discrimination, a violation of the federal statutes Title IX and Title VII. It may also violate state criminal and civil statutes. And some forms of sexual harassment may be actionable as child abuse, sexual assault, rape, pornography, criminal or civil libel, slander, or defamation of character. Victims, as well as educators or community members acting on the victim's behalf, may file sexual-harassment complaints.

Recently, a new avenue for the adjudication of cases involving the sexual harassment/child abuse of minors by school personnel was created in a precedent-setting case heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In that case, Stoneking v. Bradford Area (Pa.) School District, the court held that public-school officials had violated a student's 14th Amendment right to "liberty" when they failed to protect her from sexual abuse by school employees. The decision paved the way for the former highschool student to sue a Pennsylvania school district and individual school officials for negligent super- vision of a band director who had sexually assaulted her during school-sponsored events and trips, and sometimes on school property.

Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Title IX sexual-harassment case involving a female high-school student who said she was sexually harassed by a teacher/coach. This case, Christine Franklin v. Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools, will examine whether compensatory damages are available in such cases. Much is at stake with this case, not the least of which is the perceived or real weight of Title IX as an avenue for redress for sexual harassment.

In the aftermath of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, and in the season of the Franklin case, we need to acknowledge that sexual harassment exists in elementary and secondary schools also. We need to provoke a national awareness of this problem, which might offer solutions to the all-too-typical scenarios that began this Commentary. Among the solutions that might apply in such cases are the following:

  • Remediating sexual-harassment incidents before they escalate with the use of non-litigious remedies.
  • Training current and future teachers and administrators to be aware of the existence and the manifestations of this problem in schools, and delineating their responsibilities to intervene.
  • Disentangling the jurisdictional confusion about which state agencies have authority over complaints when they arise in schools, and then publicizing those lines of authority to the public and to students.
  • Puncturing the conspiracy of silence among superintendents who force an employee to resign because of alleged sexual misconduct, yet fail to inform subsequent employers of the incidents that led to their actions (a syndrome known as the "mobile molester.")
  • Designing models for public policy, procedures, and regulations to ensure that children who experience sexual abuse and sexual harassment in school settings are heard and protected.

Our neglect and denial can no longer be allowed to silence these victims. It is time to recognize that sexual harassment, a pervasive, pernicious problem, is an obstacle to receiving equal educational opportunity, and that, in order to achieve real justice for all, we must take action to prevent and eliminate it.


The following materials and reports on sexual harassment are available from the Massachusetts Department of Education, 1385 Hancock St., Quincy, Mass. 02169-5183: . Who's Hurt and Who's Liable: Sexual Harassment in Massachusetts Schools: A Curriculum and Guide for School Personnel (1986). Contact the Bureau of Equity and Language Services. . No Laughing Matter: High School Students and Sexual Harassment (1982), a 25-minute VHS videotape. Contact the Bureau of Educational Technologies.

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 25, 32

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